Lucky 13

Innovative Project To Span Arts Premieres

“Dancers aren’t just dancers; they’re also actors, and they’re also musicians,” claims choreographer Adrienne M. Minster ’04. These are the fighting words of a rising student trend towards interdisciplinary art—collaboratively mixing genres from dance to music to drama—at Harvard.

A handful of students spent their Friday night clanging large empty water jugs together, fleeing from a monster composed of two other students, and tumbling from a building into the underworld—all while watched by about fifty other undergraduates.

Last Friday’s spunky debut of “Thirteen”—a new collaborative group combining Harvard musicians, dancers, actors and technicians—turned the Rieman Center for the Performing Arts into an improvisational showcase for what performers hope will be the future of the arts at Harvard.

Project instigator Matthew J. Corriel ’05 said that the group wanted to put the perfomers’ distinct media “together on the same plane of importance.”

The Harvard arts world has always been segregated—musicians, actors, painters, dancers all do their own thing.

But “Thirteen” wanted to bring them all together—and so they gathered some of Harvard’s most experienced artists, who in turn brought in others. In the end, they had assembled a group of performers—last minute changes actually left them a few shy of thirteen—from across the artistic spectrum who were excited about interdisciplinary effort.

Their first performance attracted numerous friends and a crowd of collaborative art enthusiasts, including many members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club.

Although the performers had advertised that the show would begin at 8 p.m., they in fact started performing around 7:30, their mock fighting and simulated sex surprising the incoming audience.

Corriel, who music directed “Ex-Rated” last semester, said he has long been interested in the power dynamics of Harvard’s artistic community. He said the dramatic components—plays and musical theater—tend to dominate supposedly interdisciplinary shows.

But with “Thirteen,” members said each art form was on equal footing, interacting and responding to the others—entirely improvised.

Corriel said he initially wanted to center their performance around a pre-selected text, but the performers opted for improv instead.

Adrienne M. Minster ’04 said that the group didn’t want to be bound in any way.

“We start with literally nothing.” she said. “We said, ‘Let’s make it as organic as possible.’”

On the spot

This organic nature proved the most noticeable element of the performance. Each performer entered and exited at various times to sing, dance, play, speak and offer what they thought scene might need at the moment—a proposition which members said was at times daunting.

“You have to blend with something going on onstage,” Drake said.

"You’re heavily dependent on someone else to bail you out if an idea is running its course.”

Members of “Thirteen” said that interacting with other dedicated student performers from different creative backgrounds has proven challenging but fun.

“We’ve really gotten to know each other,” said dancer Ryuji Yamaguchi ’03. “The most important thing is for us to be able to communicate with each other.”

In addition to the dancers, musicians and actors, Dan Scully ’99 improvised stage lighting throughout the show—in striking contrast to the pre-prepared lighting of most shows—in order to add a visual dimension. As the action on-stage changed, the lights dimmed, changed colors and narrowed to focus on particular performers.

Splayed across the stage were an array of instruments. A piano, a violin and a drumset were the most conventional of the collection, accompanied by empty water jugs, couch cushions and a table full of ringing cell phones. Props were used as devices for acting as well as to create sound.

As the performers dealt with shifting scenes and they picked up the rhythms and themes of each other’s art forms.

Sometimes the movement was rather pedestrian, sometimes elements of ethnic dance crept in; there was even a fair share of wild sprinting across the stage.

Scully, who works in the Office for the Arts’ dance program, said he was very enthusiastic about the performance.

“It’s always exciting to see students exploring cross-disciplinary forms,” says Scully. “The lack of hard boundaries between art disciplines here at Harvard is one of our strengths.”

Newer Movements

While interdisciplinary art is not exactly revolutionary, it is a movement that is picking up steam at Harvard.

Minster cites last October’s “Ex-Rated,” as a sort of genesis. Later this semester, a thesis project in the same venue will provide another outlet.

And while nothing definite has been set for an encore performance, Corriel assures that “Thirteen” will indeed be an “ongoing pursuit” in the spring, emphasizing that the primary goal is getting people interested in interdisciplinary art.

Corriel said he hoped the first audience “had some kind of emotional experience, or intellectual experience, or both.”

“Thirteen’s” task won’t be easy, though, because of the difficulty of merging a dozen students’ creative visions.

“It’s challenging to work with this many people in improv,” performer Michael M. Donahue ’05 said. “It requires an even greater connection. This is by no means a polished performance.”

And no two performances will be alike.

“Our goal as performers is to create something intriguing in the moment,” Yamaguchi said. “Every time we do it, it’s very different. ”

Corriel said that his goal of “trying to have influence come from everybody” requires every member of the group to learn to perform in mediums different from their primary one. Musicians are trying to act and actors and dancers are making music.

“Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good sound,” Yamaguchi joked.

The performers said they ultimately hope the project will influence the way art is done at Harvard.

“I’d like to see people realize that interdisciplinary art is exciting and can happen,” Yamaguchi said.

But it may take time before outcroppings of collaborative improvisation shows ripple across campus.

“This is just a first step,” Corriel said.

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